Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Behind the Prosperity Message of Happy Warriors

By Gary Berg-Cross
It’s great to have a positive attitude, especially if it’s realistically based. But when I consider some well-positioned contemporary figures, such as Bob McDonald and Donald Trump, I get a sense that their bonhomie is more superficial and synthetic than deeply held. Pol Marco Rubio has that happy warrior charm and youthful vigor that makes him seem a popular and attractive figure. His nicknames is McDreamy. But what is behind this projected charm? In part it seems to me part of a conscious tactic to do what Norman Vincent Peale called winning friends and influencing people as part of positive thinking. (Peale published “The Power of Positive Thinking” in 1952). My working hypothesis of the classic, happy attitude and seeming brightness of people like George W. Bush is that it is reflexive strategy implemented as a habit and not necessarily a deep seated trait. As a persona strategy it sometimes combines an ego trip of self-delusion with an ideological certainty of how the world ought to be with an unconscious, habitual need to influence people. This mix can lead to some seemingly paradoxical and awkward behavior when reality and delusional certainty collide.

Willard Mitt Romney seems to be in this mold of an artificially upbeat character. His persona seems to produce moments of false bravado and good, old boy cheer that seemed forced, synthetic and sometimes just weird, "ya'll". His efforts at a common touch strike me and many others as programmed in. Because of this he’s been described as a robotic cheerleader type. Alternately he’s labeled as a Richie Rich (aka Richee Mitt) character that is devoid of “real” emotions. His wealth and privilege seem to prevent him from getting in touch with the common man. He seems ill at ease campaigning in front of various groups around the country. One wonders what world view or vision they reflect. It seems a bit hypocritical as I posted in Becoming what we Hate. Whatever the reason the vision seems to be something that most of us can’t relate to. It produces friendly, global demeanors but at times these seem per-programmed and not quite appropriate to the situation. I posit that these awkward behaviors have roots in both his religious-culture experience, the prosperity gospel, and as a “motivational” corporate leader in late 20th century American. Both exhort believers to be positive, very positive not matter what.
The religious connection apparently started during his over seas Mormon mission work. While there he read Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich on the recommendation of a Mormon church leader in Utah. First published in 1937 and eventually selling 60 million copies, Think and Grow Rich is probably the most widely read book teaching what is called a gospel of positive thinking as a means to financial or business success. In Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Robert M. Bowman Jr. describes Hill’s book as:
“a thinly veiled version of the New Thought prosperity doctrine, according to which the universe is suffused with “Infinite Intelligence” into which one can tap by thinking and thereby achieve whatever one sets out to do.”
This aspect of a prosperity gospel is well described in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided which explores the “Dark Side of Positive Thinking” in both the religious and corporate world. Ehrenreich, who is beyond wonderful in all her writing, charts the path of the positivity messages such as “When life hands out lemons, squeeze out a smile”. In religion the surprising story is how a positive philosophy has pressed on and partially displaced the older, gloomy message of Calvinism. Its positive message has found a place in religious niches as diverse as Mormon and evangelical mega-churches. There pastors have been celebrities as robed motivational speakers selling a stitched-together faith called “prosperity gospel. Essentially the message of this gospel is that God rewards positive thinking with material riches. God WANTS the faithful to be rich. All that believers have to do is have the right attitude and keep working. It’s a powerful message to blue collar workers. One also sees a message of hope projected by bright aura politicians like Herman Cain, a former motivational speaker. 

And the positive, prosperity message has a resonance in Corporate American, from which Mitt Romney comes. Enhrereich wrote pitch perfectly about this sunny, guru world of CEOs long before Mitt's 2011-12 campaign. The older Corporate American included pragmatic professionals such as Mitt’s father George, which mixed technical ability, leadership and liberal values. His son Mitt is more of a country club member and celebrity CEO who is proud to say he knows the elite owners of this and that. This connection to the prosperous works in the board room which, aside from the Mormon church, is Romney's natural playing ground. He is probably at home inspiring (or firing) employees.  It's a strength and as a motivational speaker he probably expects to pump up an audience of true believers with a few good lines about conservative staples like lower taxes. After all isn’t money - and Mitt has money ranking in the 0.006 percent of Americans - next to godliness? His formula to win people over is a mix of “tribal stories” of hope set in a positive message in which poverty is the fault of the poor for not being better people. Need to stir the emotions? Just a few dog whistles about the “enemy” and evil will do that. Although Rick Santorum seems better than Mitt at that, after all he's brought the devil issue into the campaign. To Rick most things seem to simplify down to a battle of good against evil, which I've blogged on earlier as part of Binary Thinking.

But Mitt expects to win since he is Chosen, and after all he is a proven corporate success with a winning smile. He's a turn around artist that generated wealth for him and his Bain fellows. Turing around the country might just mean acquiring a few governmental things and firing people and, well making a few rich people richer.Perhaps what he is thinking is that what resonates in the Corporate Board room should work as an empowering message to with the mass congregation that is the electorate. Or perhaps the idea is that as a preacher of the positive message he can convert all of us to the prosperity gospel and its implications. It's not clear which it is and when people ask such questions we get what seems disingenuous answers.  He seems to not know what answers would be perceived positively by an audience.   As a take over artist he has to sell some vision, but  as in many take overs, it will all be different when the new management team takes control.  They get to dismantle the pieces as a turn around artist.

But converting the populace isn't so easy in an economy that has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class. People are skeptical ,as they should be of happy warrior pols whose plans to help seem, upon closer analysis, might be geared to helping the already prosperous. The father, George Romney’s message would probably play better than Mitt's thin veneer of positive thinking. People want to know where’s the beef of these motivational speaker and smiling cobra corporate types. People know that corporate elites have fought for government subsidies, tax benefits and tax havens. And they perhaps wonder if the Richie Rich and famous CEO types are the new emperor who have neither clothing for the masses or beef.

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